Mayor Van Zanen offers apologies for The Hague’s colonial past and slavery history

Published: 21 November 2022Modified: 21 November 2022

Mayor Jan van Zanen on Sunday, 20 November 2022 was officially presented the book ‘Het koloniale en slavernijverleden van Hofstad Den Haag’ in the Koninklijke Schouwburg. During the presentation of the research study he offered his apologies for the way in which his predecessors supported and profited from colonialism and slavery.

Van Zanen offered his apologies on behalf of The Hague Municipal Executive. Below are a few excerpts from his speech.

The Hague commissioned this research study into its slave history as well as its entire colonial past. Slavery, after all, was part of the colonial system. But this does not mean that we have turned a blind eye to the enormous differences among the victims. The Hague fully acknowledges the unique position of the victims of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery in the Caribbean. Through this research we want to do justice towards them and their descendants.

Different history from other cities

The Hague’s colonial past and slave history is different from other cities in the Netherlands. The Hague was not a trading centre and it did not acquire ‘official‘ city rights until the beginning of the 19th century. As seat of the government and the royal court (first for the  stadthouders and later for successive monarchs) The Hague, however, was the place where all colonial policy decisions were taken and thus also decisions on slavery and contract labour.  

The Hague Municipal Council fully realises how closely our predecessors, part of the ruling class then, were involved in the system of colonialism and slavery. Wealthy citizens in The Hague invested around 200,000 guilders, equivalent to € 3.3 million by today’s standards, in the United East India Company (VOC). When slavery was abolished in 1863 there were at least 40 owners of plantations in the Caribbean living in The Hague. What was striking: these plantation owners were not merchants, but rather members of the aristocracy, military officials, civil servants and a number of politicians.

We know that approximately 20% of the population of The Hague today are descendants of people who were victims of colonial oppression or slavery. As mayor of The Hague, city of peace and justice, on behalf of The Hague Executive I offer my sincere apologies for the way in which our predecessors supported and profited from the system of colonialism and slavery.   

Immense suffering

Excuses cannot undo the immense suffering your ancestors and the ancestors of so many other residents of The Hague were put through. I also want to emphasise that nobody currently living in The Hague is guilty for the deeds of city residents and administrators of that time. We are aware that past injustices are still felt today. And this has led to feelings of hurt. And anger. Also because the system of colonialism and slavery was founded on racism and the idea of white superiority. These phenomena still confront the descendants of the victims of colonialism and slavery today.

Racism is still a poisonous force, also in our modern-day society. It is precisely for this reason that it is so important to acknowledge the suffering caused by the system of colonialism and slavery. We can only really deal with today’s racism once the memory of the origins of racism and its consequences – colonialism and slavery – become part of our collective memory. And this is currently not yet the case. The vision of our history is not yet complete. It was particularly the (decades-long) lack of attention for the slavery history which has caused so much hurt and anger.